Friday, September 18, 2020
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Background music affects attitudes toward sharks

Whether you think sharks are graceful or scary, the background music during any shark movies or documentaries you’ve seen may have had a part in shaping that opinion, new research out of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, suggests.

The researchers, who work both at Scripps and at Harvard University, also theorized that ominous background music during shark documentaries would hinder shark conservation efforts. Their research was published August 3 in the journal PLOS ONE.

Their study used more than 2,000 online participants who shared their attitudes toward sharks after watching a 60-second video clip of sharks swimming. They compared the results of the participants who watched the clip set to:

• uplifting music     • ominous music     • silence

Same clip. Just different music.

Then they asked participants to score, on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being “not at all” and 7 being “very much,” how much they would use the following adjectives to describe sharks:


  • peaceful
  • graceful
  • beautiful


  • scary
  • dangerous
  • vicious



Participants who viewed the video with ominous background music rated sharks more negatively than those who viewed the clip with uplifting music or no music. Their mean scores (± standard error of measurement) are shown below, with mean “negative” referring to the average scores (out of 7) given by participants to adjectives on the right list above and mean “positive” referring to the scores given to the adjectives on the left.

jrnl_shark_music_tops
Impression of sharks after listening to specified type of music (PLOS ONE)

“Given that nature documentaries are often regarded as objective and authoritative sources of information, it is critical that documentary filmmakers and viewers are aware of how the soundtrack can affect the interpretation of the educational content,” said Dr Nosal, the lead author of the study.

They also did the same type of experiment and asked people about their willingness to participate in conservation efforts for sharks. Differences weren’t as dramatic as those for people’s impressions of sharks given different music backgrounds, and their hypothesis was not supported: These experiments show that attitudes toward shark conservation efforts are not influenced by the background music played in a documentary.

“It has already been shown that engaging a supportive public in shark conservation is challenging due to generally negative attitudes toward sharks,” they write. “Filmmakers, journalists, and exhibit designers set the tone of their works, and, while an ominous soundtrack may enhance their entertainment aspect, it may also undermine their educational value by biasing viewers’ perceptions of sharks.”

That may make it less likely that those viewers will give credibility to shark conservation efforts, they believe. But another experiment will be needed to tie people’s perceptions about the genus to actual behaviors such as donating to a cause. This one came up empty.

But what this study does is add to the body of scientific knowledge about music’s importance in our lives. It shapes our emotions and perceptions, and it has merited a prominent place in our curriculum, even for those people whose perceptions of sharks make them unlikely to engage in conservation efforts.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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